Now THAT, friends, was a hockey game. And a hockey series.
Minnesota and North Dakota played their usual inspired, physical game Friday and Saturday night, and the Gophers prevailed both times. They were hard-fought, VERY competitive games where Minnesota found ways to win. If you turned on the tube either night you wouldn't have been able to tell which team came out of the weekend 9-1 and which was a surprising 3-6-1. You would have no trouble telling that this is the best rivalry in college hockey.
Mike Lombardi of the National Football Post and the NFL Network likes to say good teams can win "left-handed" meaning that when an opponent is able to take away what they do well, the good team can still find a way to win. And I'd say the Gophers did that this weekend. In previous games, the Gophers were getting plenty of shots, plenty of goals, and their special teams- especially the power play- were really clicking. Minnesota was AVERAGING over 5 goals a game, and yet they scored 5 total the entire weekend. The vaunted Gopher power play? Just 1-14. Sophomore center Eric Haula, who came in as not just the team's, not just the conference's, but the NATION'S leading scorer? UND held him scoreless in both games.
Yet the Gophers found ways to win. Friday night the Gophers outshot UND 32-24, managed a 2nd period Nick Bjugstad power play goal, and sealed it with a late third period even-strength goal from Tom Serratore. Saturday Minnesota badly outshot UND 42-19 yet halfway through the third period trailed 2-1 with only a first period Bjudstad goal to show for it. Despite all of those shots, Minnesota just could not solve Sioux goalie Aaron Dell, while North Dakota capitalized on their chances to that point. Both goalies were incredible all weekend as Kent Patterson continued to be the best goalie in college hockey while Dell, last year's 1st team-all WCHA goalie who had struggled a bit this season, was outstanding. They were the two best goalies in the conference last year, and looked like it again this weekend.
Down 2-1 in the third, the frustrated Gophers didn't fold, and UND didn't give them much help, as the Sioux committed just one penalty in the third, and held the Gopher power play scoreless. Minnesota just kept pressing, and it finally paid off as Travis Boyd won a battle along the end wall and centered to Nick Larson on the doorstep, who banged home the equalizer. The crowd EXPLODED and the Gophs had their mojo back. Oh yeah, and the crowd? At least on TV they were electric. It was a playoff atmosphere on the ice, and in the stands. This one meant a LOT to the players, and definitely for the fans, who have been impatiently waiting for a team like this to cheer for again.
Tied 2-2 with just seven minutes left both teams were going end to end, getting chances and getting stopped. Patterson had a couple of enormous saves to preserve the tie, and in the final minute, the top line of Bjugstad, Zach Budish and freshman sensation Kyle Rau came through again. Bjugstad had the puck on the left wall and was skating back towards the blue line to try to create space before he whirled around and back-handed a pass towards the net. The puck hit traffic, but Budish was able to knock it down with his hand and shot it- a key play considering if he knocks it down with his hand to a teammate, it's a hand pass and the whistle blows. Instead he's able to get a shot himself which Dell stops, but the rebound goes right to the stick of Rau, who was all by his lonesome at the right post. Bang! Rau hammers it in and the place goes bezerk!
It just doesn't seem possible Rau is as young as he is, as he's been one of the team's best players so far this year. He was held scoreless for almost 120 minutes of the series, but he stayed with it and got the winner just in the nick of time. The goal celebration-and fan reaction- reminded me of the World Junior tournament, where every goal a team scores is a HUGE deal. That's how Minnesota reacted on Larson's equalizer and Rau's winner, and it's fun to see Gopher hockey fans amped up again.
What a weekend, and what a sweep. The Gophers proved they can win a wide-open high scoring game, and this series they proved they can win a low-scoring, physical battle too. Minnesota sits alone in first in the WCHA with 12 points, three up on...Michigan Tech? Yeah the conference is WIDE open this year, and there's still a lot of hockey to play. And that bodes well for UND, who have dug themselves a hole early in the year with a 1-5 conference record and just 2 points, but they showed this weekend they have the talent of a top team. They'll need to start winning games ASAP, but with how all over the place things are right now (Tech in 2nd, Duluth and Sconnie 4th, and Denver and CC 6th?!?) there's plenty of time for them to regain their swagger and move up the standings. I thought Rocco Grimaldi made a big difference for them Saturday night (he didn't skate Friday), and once he gets healthy and into the swing of things, their offense is going to get a lot deeper and more dangerous.
Minnesota and North Dakota meet again in January up at The Ralph, and I can't wait. For now, we'll just have to settle for arch-rival #2 as the Gophs travel to Madtown this weekend at the Kohl Center. Hockey's back and the Gophers are back, and like the crowd at Mariucci last night, I couldn't be more excited.